Jumbo Jimmy's in Port Deposit, Maryland, may be named after the state's largest blue crabs, but it is also the center for a culture that has been shaped more by mountains than oceans. About a mile from the Hollywood Casino on I-95, Jumbo Jimmy's is an elongated, one-story brick building that hosts some of the world's finest bluegrass music.
When I visited back in July, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass were huddled in one corner of the dining room, next to the closed-down salad bar and beneath the posters for Maryland fishing. But when the five musicians kicked off the up-tempo bluegrass tune, 'Please Don't, Honey, Please Don't,' several women jumped up from a nearby banquet table and began striking the wood-slat floor with their heels and toes in a display of authentic mountain clogging.
It was a reminder that this northeast corner of Maryland has been a dislocated patch of Appalachia since the 1930s. That tradition continues this weekend when the Baltimore Folk Festival, featuring the Bumper Jacksons and Letitia VanSant, comes to the Ottobar on Saturday.
The Paisleys were just one of many families from Ashe County in North Carolina who moved up to this area. They brought their music, dancing, food, and churches with them, recreating the culture of the tristate mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee in the tristate hills of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
This rural-to-rural migration, prompted by the near-total collapse of the Appalachian economy during the Great Depression, was paralleled by a rural-to-urban migration from greater Appalachia to Baltimore City. When these two different scenes began to interact in the 1950s, they created one of the most vibrant string-band scenes in America.
It was in Baltimore that Pennsylvania's Del McCoury met Bill Monroe and joined the latter's band. It was in Baltimore that Hazel Dickens met Alice Gerrard and formed the most influential female duo in string-band history. It was in Baltimore that folklorist Alan Lomax found Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys and booked them as the first-ever bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall. And it was Baltimore banjo player Walter Hensley's innovative 1969 album, "Pickin' on New Grass," that introduced the name for a modern movement in bluegrass. It was in northeast Maryland that Roy Acuff offered Pennsylvania's Ola Belle a job in his band, a job she turned down to eventually become a major songwriter and bandleader in her own right.
This hidden history of Maryland music has been described in periodicals—most often, perhaps, in this newspaper—but now it has finally been documented in two books, both published over the summer.
"Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line" by Henry Glassie, Clifford R. Murphy, and Douglas Dowling Peach was published by Dust-to-Digital in a lavishly illustrated hardback book that includes 58 unreleased songs on two CDs. Though hampered by academic prose, it provides the most in-depth look yet at the Reed, Paisley, Lundy, Campbell, and Miller families who dominated the tristate-corner community.
"Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound and Its Legacy" by Tim Newby was published by McFarland as a trade paperback with lots of black-and-white photos and an invaluable index. Presented as easy-to-read journalism, this book takes a broader view of Maryland's string-band scene, both urban and rural, both past and present.
These two books shine a new light on one of Maryland's greatest cultural achievements: a golden era of string-band music that went underappreciated not only outside the state but within the state as well. Perhaps recognition was denied because this accomplishment was created by the state's poorest and least credentialed artists—much like Baltimore jazz in the '70s, Irish folk music in the '80s, or Bmore club in the '90s.
The string-band music made by these transplanted Appalachian musicians revealed Maryland's essential character as a border state: The musicians came from the South, but it was their collision with the factories and dense housing in Baltimore that transformed their old-time country songs into modern bluegrass. Something similar happened when Southern black musicians moved to Maryland, interacted with New York bebop, and created a church-y form of hard-bop. The advantage of the string-band scene, however, is that it maintained both an urban base in Baltimore and a rural base along the Mason-Dixon Line. It was the interaction between those two areas that made the North/South dynamic more powerful and more enduring in Maryland than elsewhere.
"The music in Baltimore was more a general melting pot of Southern people who moved to the city," Danny Paisley says, "while ours was more focused on the Ashe County sound from North Carolina. Baltimore had people from all over the South. But we used to go to Baltimore all the time.
"I'd get a call from Walter Hensley, Jon Glik, or Mike Munford, and they'd ask if I could come down and play. We played all those clubs—Pete's Lounge, Cub Hill Inn, and the Sandpiper Inn—and with all those guys you've heard about: Warren Blair, Russ Hooper, and Jim McCall. These guys are legends in this field. Guys like Walter and Jon were recruited by Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin, but they stayed home."
They stayed home, because in Baltimore, in the '50s and '60s at least, a bluegrass musician could play four-to-seven nights a week while holding down a decent full-time job. Why should they give up a healthy paycheck and a short commute to the bars to travel long distances with Bill Monroe or Jimmy Martin to play for peanuts?
An hour to the northeast, Ola Belle Reed and her brother Alex Campbell could work every week as the house band at New River Park in Maryland and later at Sunset Park in Pennsylvania while hosting a weekly radio show from their own grocery store. Why would they accept less money to hit the road?
"Some of the greatest musicians in bluegrass never had to leave this area," says Mark Delaney, Paisley's banjo player. "The Stanley Brothers became world famous, because they had to leave Clinch Mountain to make any money. Bill Monroe had to leave Rosine. But the Baltimore musicians didn't have to travel, because they could play seven nights a week, $5 a night per musician. They'd keep a job and play all the time.
"Everyone had cash in their pocket, because the economy was booming. Bluegrass fans were spending money, so bars were doing real good. As a result, the bands were playing all the time, four hours a night, seven nights a week. You had to be really untalented to not get better playing that much. There were other towns like that—Washington, Dayton, Cincinnati, Detroit—but Baltimore was the best."
These two books, "Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line" and "Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound and Its Legacy," tell those stories in far more detail than they've ever been told in print before.
Newby, Glassie, Murphy, and Peach delve behind the biggest names—McCoury, Dickens, Taylor, Reed, and Paisley—to rescue some brilliant musicians and fascinating characters who might otherwise be lost to history: Russ Hooper, a dobro talent equal to Flatt and Scruggs' Uncle Josh Graves, many say, but who preferred to be the glue for many a Baltimore band; multi-instrumentalist Jack Cooke, who logged many years in the Baltimore bars between stints with Monroe and Ralph Stanley; singer Charlie Waller, who cut his teeth in those same taverns before founding the Country Gentlemen; Sonny Miller, the old-school fiddler for Reed who went on to play for McCoury and Joe Val; Jim McCall, the Lester Flatt-like singer who frequently played with Taylor—and just as frequently fought with him; Lamar Grier, the banjoist who graduated from the Eager Street picking parties to play with Monroe, Dickens, and Peter Rowan; and aforementioned virtuoso banjoist Walter Hensley, who inspired Jerry Garcia but whose self-doubts sabotaged one career opportunity after another.
"I knew Walter," says Delaney. "He was ahead of his time. He heard the banjo in ways people hadn't heard before. He was doing things with the instrument before the other players did. He could play chromatic and melodic at a time when that was very rare. Bill Keith wasn't around yet. It's the same thing that separates another Baltimore banjo player, Mike Munford, from the pack: innovation. Walter was like that. He was the first banjo player to play Carnegie Hall. He recorded for Capitol Records in Nashville with the Jordanaires. He had opportunities but didn't do anything with them."
Both books wrestle with the contradictions inherent in bluegrass. It's a modern music, invented by Bill Monroe in the mid-'40s, roughly a decade before rock 'n' roll, but filled with nostalgia for a way of life left behind. It's a music that flourished best in cities such as Baltimore and Cincinnati, where there were dense enough concentrations of the Appalachian Diaspora to make bluegrass nightclubs an economic possibility, but the songs were steeped in the sounds and stories of the rural South. It was an overwhelmingly male-dominated genre that venerated mothers and sweethearts—but Maryland produced two of the finest female songwriters in the history of string-band music: Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed.
In 1954, Hazel Dickens took the bus from Montcalm, West Virginia, to Baltimore, following in the footsteps of three older siblings who had earlier escaped a bleak future in coal-mining towns for healthier, better-paying work in Maryland's factories. It was hard to say goodbye to her mother—a scene she captured indelibly in her song 'Mama's Hand'—but she had to go.
"It got harder and harder for my father to keep all of us," Dickens told me in 1999 over the phone for City Paper, "so I decided I should go. There was nothing there for me. There was no way to make a living. I couldn't afford clothes and I wanted a guitar. There were no options for women except marriage unless you went to the city. There were lots of families where the men had gone. But it was still uncommon for women. It was easier for me, because I already had family there."
Newby describes how Hazel lived with her older sister Velvie on Eutaw Place near North Avenue. That area, stretching eastward to Lower Charles Village and northeastward to Remington and Hampden, constituted one of Baltimore's "hillbilly ghettos" of the time. Highlandtown was another, and Dundalk was a third. As more and more relatives arrived from the mountains, these narrow rowhouses would often be bursting at the seams, and the tensions would be relieved by all-night picking parties on the weekends.
Inevitably the walls around those ghettos weakened, and a crucial interactions with the rest of Baltimore began to occur. Bill Clifton, for example, came from a wealthy family in Towson, but he fell in love with string-band music and published one of its first important songbooks: 1955's "150 Old Time Folk and Gospel Songs." As he played with the Appalachian migrants in Baltimore, he became a noted string-band singer himself and was voted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Fame in 2008.
Hazel's brother Robert was a tuberculosis patient at the Mount Wilson State Hospital in Pikesville. One of the hospital's orderlies was a conscientious objector named Mike Seeger—the son of folklorist Charles Seeger and half-brother of Pete Seeger. When he met Robert, Mike wrangled an invitation to the weekend picking parties in Lower Charles Village and soon became a regular. Soon other, educated, middle-class enthusiasts were showing up, including Carl Chatzky, Jeremy Foster, and the latter's girlfriend Alice Gerrard.
Those parties, Gerrard tells Newby, featured "an amazing collection of people. There would be country people and city people, younger, sometimes radical, left-wing political young people or just plain young people from the upper-middle class, and then the hillbillies would come. We would all just sit around and play music, eat, and there would be these parties that would go all night. Sometimes the police would come and close them down. It was wild, and we were all very young."
Dickens told me that it was the respect and enthusiasm she got from Seeger, Gerrard, and their friends that made her re-examine the music she grew up with and see it as something of value, not just something to pass the time between body-crushing and soul-crushing work shifts in those mining towns. That new perspective made her take her own songwriting seriously for the first time and led to such classic songs as 'Scraps from Your Table,' 'Hills of Home,' and 'It's Hard To Tell the Singer from the Song.'
Something similar happened to Ola Belle Reed, the dominating figure in the book by Glassie, Murphy, and Peach. Her older brother Ronda came up from North Carolina to Maryland first, in 1932, and after he had established himself there, he sent a flatbed truck south to bring up the rest of the family in 1933, when Ola Wave Campbell, her birth name, was 17. The family had run grocery stores in Ashe County, and now they were running them at various towns near the Mason-Dixon Line: Ronda in North East, Maryland; his father in Rising Sun, Maryland; Alex in New London, Pennsylvania; and Aunt Mary in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
Ola Belle, as she renamed herself, grew up in Ashe County, and she supplemented her work at the store and as a maid with music. She played and sang with the North Carolina Ridge Runners, an old-time mountain band on the Mason-Dixon Line from 1938 to 1950. That's when she co-founded a new band with her brother Alex, back from the war: the New River Boys and Girls. She was the only female, a 34-year-old woman who sang and played clawhammer banjo. Alex was all excited by the recently invented bluegrass music, but his sister was still fond of the old-time mountain music.
"It may sound fantastic to you," she told Glassie, "but sounds are created over a period of years. They're changed and they're brought up to today, modern, but they have to be a beginning. I think those early sounds are just as important as the sounds of today . . . But I believe that the mountain people, I believe their songs date back a lot further than a lot of others."
Alex and Ola Belle had radio shows on WASA and then at WCOJ. Alex, Ola Belle, and her new husband Bud Reed leased and cleared some land on the Octoraro Creek to create an outdoor country-music park called the New River Ranch. They built the stage—little more than a shack with a large front porch—20 feet from the stream and placed lumber planks on cinder blocks for the seating on the hillside.
It was a humble operation, but it attracted such major bluegrass stars as Monroe, Martin, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs as well as country stars such as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and George Jones. The park was open every Sunday in good weather; the New River Boys and Girls opened the show, followed by a local band such as Del McCoury's or Bob Paisley's, followed by the headliner—and that sequence was repeated once more so that each band played two times.
After a blizzard leveled New River Ranch in 1958, the Campbell/Reed family moved its operation to a similar venue nearby: Sunset Park in Jennersville, Pennsylvania, where the show went on till 1995. The era of these country parks is documented in the 2008 book, "Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives, 1961-1971," featuring the Baltimore fan's stunning photographs with text by country-music writer Eddie Dean.
Along with the Appalachian migrants from Baltimore and the Mason-Dixon Line who flocked to these parks, college-educated folk-revival musicians such as Alice Gerrard, David Bromberg, and David Grisman; Mike Seeger and Jerry Garcia came as well. These outsiders quickly recognized the beauty of Ola Belle Reed's singing and picking as well as the importance of her original songs.
In 1966, a young folklorist named Henry Glassie visited and became so enamored of Reed's old-time, non-bluegrass numbers that he offered to record them, because he felt they should be preserved for posterity. From those 1966-67 recordings come the 24 songs on the first CD in the "Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music" package. Just as Seeger's attention had made Dickens rethink the value of her songs, so did Glassie's make Reed rethink the value of hers.
"Henry Glassie talked to my mother in a way no one had ever talked to her," David Reed told me back in July, in the Childs Store, the former site of the Childs, Maryland Post Office and now a store where Hugh sells his rebuilt and newly created furniture, often painted with eye-catching folk art by his brother Zane. "He took her seriously. He saw something in my mother that no one around here had seen. He wanted to take her to a new audience. And she started expressing herself in a way I'd never seen."
"What I remember most clearly was the music she made after that transition," adds Hugh Campbell, Ola Belle's nephew and Ronda's son. "She realized that the hippies wanted to hear the real thing: that old mountain music, this woman singing her own songs and playing clawhammer banjo. Henry was interested in the music she made before joining the band and playing bluegrass. She was coming back to the old songs as if she were making a full circle."
A wall in Childs Store is covered with musical memorabilia: Del McCoury's album named after Ola Belle's song 'High on a Mountain,' several of her own albums, an album by Zane's New York punk band Hard Facts, a poster for Bill Monroe at Sunset Park, a cedar trunk painted with scenes from Sunset Park and New River Ranch, and Zane's hand-painted portrait of his aunt.
The three cousins are all singer-songwriters, and though Zane had just left, David and Hugh leaned back in their chairs amid the dark-wood cabinets, high windows, and white walls and regaled their visitors with country/folk songs that seemed to carry the influence of Ola Belle Reed into the 20th century.
The second CD in the "Ola Belle Reed" book contains 34 similar performances by David Reed, the Campbell brothers, and neighbors such as Danny Paisley, Burl Kilby, and the DeBusk-Weaver Family gospel singers. The solo album "Zane Campbell," released earlier this year, was described by this paper as "one of the most touching and sad-in-that-way-that-makes-you-feel-happy records I've heard in quite some time" (and for full disclosure was recorded by City Paper contributor Travis Kitchens).
It's a reminder of how string-band music is so often a family business that's passed down from generation to generation: Del McCoury often played the Baltimore bars with his brother Jerry and has played with his sons Ronnie and Rob since the 1980s. The Del McCoury Band has won the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award, the biggest prize in bluegrass, a record nine times and the sons are so respected that they can tour on their own as the Travelin' McCourys when Del wants to stay home.
Lamar Grier's son David became one of the best flat-pick guitarists of the baby-boomer generation. Jim McCall's son Dwight joined his father in Walter Hensley and the Dukes of Bluegrass (with Hooper and Glik) before going on to play with the Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe and the New South.
To witness the crucial role of family in Maryland's string-band music, however, you couldn't do better than sit inside Jumbo Jimmy's when the Southern Grass is playing. The band, originally called the Southern Mountain Boys, was founded by singer-guitarist Bob Paisley, fiddler Jerry Lundy, and ex-New River banjoist Ted Lundy. When old enough, the next generation of musicians—singer-guitarist Danny Paisley, bassist Michael Paisley, fiddler T.J. Lundy, and banjoist Bobby Lundy—were gradually integrated into the fathers' group.
"My father met Ted Lundy at Sunset Park," Danny Paisley says, "and they played together from 1960 to about 1979. We kids—my brother Michael, T.J. and his brother Bobby, Ola Belle's son David, and I—were all very young. We loved the music and to this day remain very close. We were in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, but the Lundys were in Wilmington, which is only 15 miles away, and the Reeds were only a dozen miles away in Campbell's Corner. It was all close together.
"It was important that all these families all played together. We not only got friendship, but we got inspired by Ola Belle's songwriting, Ted's banjo, Del's high tenor, and my dad's singing. We'd all be over at my father's house in the yard playing baseball, and after a couple of innings we'd all drop our mitts and grab our instruments. Sometimes we'd do a few songs before our fathers' set, but mostly we played in our parents' bands. We started out filling in for someone that couldn't make it; then once you were good enough you could join the band."
Back at Jumbo Jimmy's, you could see that process in action. Danny Paisley and T.J. Lundy were now the veterans in the band, but Danny's 15-year-old Ryan was holding down the mandolin chair. He had started a few years ago just playing a steady rhythm chop, but now he was playing his own respectable solos.
"Ryan has been on stage since he was very young," Danny explains, "because his mother and I are divorced and he would come with me on weekends. I can't take too much credit for it. I showed him a few chords and everything else, he learned on his own. He's got a real good ears; he can hear something once and start to work on it. I think he's got a bright career ahead of him. He even plays electric bass in the school jazz band."
In July, the band played Ray Price's old country standard, 'Talk to Your Heart,' as an up-tempo bluegrass number, an arrangement that they'd already recorded for their next album, due this winter from Maryland's bluegrass label, Patuxent Music. Danny has the rare, heartbreaking tenor that can withstand comparisons to Price, while Ryan, T.J., and Mark Delaney picked with enough precision and power to satisfy any bluegrass fan.
The cloggers jumped up from the dinner tables to clog once more, and when the band later played Monroe's 'Kentucky Waltz,' couples were slow-dancing around the floor like it was a Baltimore honky-tonk bar—or an Ashe County schoolhouse.